Morrowind: The Elder Scrolls III is Bethesda Softworks' third installment in the Elder Scrolls series of RPG games. The first two (Arena and Daggerfall) came out in the mid-1990’s, but you don’t need to have played them to play Morrowind. And, since I didn’t, I’m not going to be focusing on them.
Morrowind is a sprawling, single-player RPG with a huge goal in mind: to come as close as possible to the pencil & paper version of RPGs that so many of us have played (and which so many others have pointed at as signs of the utter depravity of geeks). Much like its predecessors, Morrowind aims to give the player almost complete freedom to explore the game in any way they can imagine. This means that you can follow the main quest storyline religiously; or you can wander about the landscape searching out caves and dungeons to explore and hunt; or you can spend your time in the cities robbing people blind. It’s completely up to your discretion.
Just as they want your gameplay experience to be open, they want your character to be developed according to your own whims. And indeed, Morrowind has one of the most novel approaches to character creation that I’ve seen in any RPG. Instead of simply creating a character and beginning the game, you're immersed in the scene and develop your character while interacting with NPCs. So let’s get to the gameplay so I can describe just what I’m talking about.
You wake up on a prison boat arriving in Vvardenfell, AKA Morrowind. You begin to interact with NPCs right away, and they draw information from you such as what your name is, what race you will play and what character class you will play. The most intriguing aspect of this character development is when you choose your character class. You have the option to pick a pre-built class, define your own class by picking your skill set or you can answer a series of questions that will allow the NPC to suggest what kind of career you’d be best suited to pursue. Of course, the different races have different strengths and weaknesses, so reviewing the manual ahead of time will help you pick the right race for the class you wish to play.
Whatever general path you follow (be it stealth, combat or magic) you’ll find that the game allows you a wealth of opportunities to practice your craft. I gotta admit, it was fun playing an aspiring thief and stealing cool stuff from right underneath people’s noses. At least, I was able to steal successfully most of the time. And that’s another cool aspect of Morrowind: don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. In other words, get caught stealing or killing, and you’re going to have a price on your head. To get rid of that price you need to pay a fine or do some time in jail. The problem with jail is that you will lose points on a random skill (because you’ve been locked up and not using them), so it’s often better to pay the fine.
There is a main quest that will unfold as you follow the pieces and meet the right people. And you’ll soon discover that Morrowind is a huge place that is ripe with places to explore, be they ruins or caves or cities. You’ll start interacting with the many NPCs who will attempt to enlist your character in their own plots and plans, allowing you to embark upon many a side quest. You’ll also find yourself embroiled in the history and politics of this isle, which are richly detailed. You’re interaction isn’t merely that of an observer, as you’ll find yourself performing duties for one group that conflict deeply with the goals of another group. The problem is that oftentimes you want the support of both groups to help you progress in other quests. This is where the openness of the game play really shines, as you are the one who will make the decisions and your actions will determine how people react to you in the future.
It’s easy to get so involved in exploring and participating in your chosen career that you allow the main quest to linger. Which is fine, because the quest will wait for you while you explore the game to your heart’s content. This leads to some of the downfalls of Morrowind.
Getting from point A to point B requires a lot of walking. A fast transit system is available between specific cities but getting to other places on the island requires you to walk. Walking is very, very slow. You can run, but running drains your endurance and when you run into a creature that you must fight out there in the wilderness, you’ll want your fatigue level to be untouched so you have a better chance of hitting and evading. This slow movement means that you’ll spend a lot of time just getting from point A to point B.
You’ll also discover that there is no way to determine how tough a creature if before you get into a fight. There are no health bars and unlike many MMORPGs on the market, no indicators to let you know if the creature you’re about to meet is anywhere near your level. You won’t know how close you are to defeating a creature until the creature drops, which means that you can’t really strategize encounters where you run into more than one enemy. This means that you’ll want to make regular use of your saved games, especially when you in the wilderness or in a dungeon. It’s also frustrating when you’ve been given a quest that involves going up against NPCs that can kick your ass, and you have no idea how tough they are until your ass is, as mentioned, getting kicked. It’s frustrating, but we can hope it is something remedied by an upcoming patch.
The graphics in Morrowind are nothing short of stunning. NPCs are varied in appearance and decoration. The cities are distinguished by their unique architectural styles and the buildings are beautiful to behold. The water that you’ll encounter is the best looking and most realistic water I’ve encountered in a game to date. The skies are gorgeous to behold – many times I’ve stopped to look up at the clouds, moon and stars in the night sky or to watch the sun set. It’s just that pretty to behold.
Of course, a game with this kind of beauty is going to demand a hefty system to do it justice. Minimum requirements are and 800MHz processor, 256MB of RAM and a GeForce2 / ATI Radeon 7500 or above video card. Not a small system by any stretch. On my Athlon 1.3 GHz system with 512 DDR RAM and a GeForce4 MX440 I didn’t run into any problems, however there are many people who report issues with machines that just meet the minimum requirements.
There are also some clipping issues in the game which I’ve personally experienced and which, before I found the console commands, ruined the moment for me. Getting stuck in a building or in the landscape is not a fun reason to have to reload a game and lose your progress. There are also some odd crashing bugs that I’ve run into. Occasionally, and only after an extended gaming session, I was unceremoniously dumped to my desktop without so much as an error message. This is disconcerting and annoying if I hadn’t saved my game recently.
Despite these problems, Morrowind is an absolutely gorgeous game to behold. The graphics really help to suck you into the game because they are just so beautiful and yet functional. I wasn’t able to figure out how to get good screenshots of the game, so I highly recommend you check out the official site at http://www.elderscrolls.com.
Sounds aren’t as strong as the graphics, but are quite good nonetheless. The main issue I had with the sounds is the relative paucity of NPC voices when compared with the wealth of graphics. They tend to blend together after a while. Luckily, the ones that are in game are well voiced so they aren’t grating or distracting, even if they can be repetitive.
The wilderness sounds are quite good and help to immerse you in the game world. Of note is the fact that Bethesda has released an official plug-in to enhance the sounds along the Bitter Coast region (the region where you start off in game). The spell sounds are a bit lacking but you don’t really notice because you’re watching the pretty lights. But the sounds, while not as expansive as the graphics, are quite well done despite this and do give the game a good atmospheric nudge.
Morrowind’s interface is fully customizable, but uses the standard mouse / keyboard combo as its default. You will find that the necessary actions can be carried out with a relatively small number of mouse-clicks and key hits, so you won’t spend a lot of time referencing a keyboard layout to determine how to make your next move.
The menu structure is a little cumbersome, what with its multiple windows taking up the entire game area and pausing your game as you access the menus. But once you get accustomed to it, you’ll discover that it’s pretty intuitive and informative. And the payoff is, that while you are paused the menus are displayed, but during game play, game space isn’t taken up by smaller versions of the menus, so you get to enjoy the graphics a bit more.
Within the menus you will be able to track your skills and level. These are directly related in that as you increase your skills you will gain in level. Unlike other games where you gain experience by slaughtering everything in the countryside, Morrowind demands that you increase in your major and minor skills to gain levels. You increase these skills simply by using them, or you can seek out someone to train you and, occasionally, you’ll read a book which will up your skills as well. It’s a unique way to measure your character’s growth and a much more useful system. For example: a thief would have to become quite the fighter in order to gain levels in many other RPGs, which is contrary to the character you’ve created. In Morrowind, you gain levels as you stealth around buildings, picking pockets and picking locks. In other words: doing what is necessary for the character you’ve created is what allows you to progress, as opposed to doing what the game dictates you need to do to gain levels. This is another fine example of Morrowind’s open game play style.
This is not applicable, as there is no multiplayer aspect in Morrowind. Truth be told, this is a relief because we know that the developers were focused on the main thrust of the game, not trying to build in multiplayer aspects in order to attract an audience who probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the game much anyway.
Morrowind, unlike Baldur’s Gate, is a single-player style game. You don’t control a party of characters, instead you run a single character through the twists and turns of this world. I’m a big fan of this style of RPG because it allows me to delve into the mindset of one character, as opposed to spending my time managing and moving a group – I’d play an RTS if micromanagement was what I was interested in doing. Morrowind allows me to create and truly roleplay a character.
Morrowind is an absolute pleasure to play. There are some bugs and some game play issues that should be addressed in future patches, but the game is solid and ready to play straight out of the box (which is amazing enough, considering some of the atrocities we’ve seen in the gaming industry recently). The graphics are absolutely top-shelf and the interface is useful, if not wholly stunning.
Some folks have complained that the game is too easy and too quick to solve. I have yet to run into this “easy” equation yet, as I’m often getting my Thief’s ass kicked. But another amazing aspect of Morrowind is that they’ve included the game editor with the game. This means that you can do anything from create a simple plugin to add a weapon or a quest to creating a completely new game using the Morrowind engine. It’s reminiscent of the freedom game fans are given to develop Mods for the Quake series of games, and it has already benefited Morrowind greatly. Some folks have already created plug-ins to increase the overall difficulty of the game for those with the complaint I mention above (while others have done the opposite for people who are finding it too difficult). Expect to see some great additions to the game come out of the fan-base.
The main joy of Morrowind for me was the sheer openness of the gameplay. I could do what I wanted when I wanted without the game trying to force me back into the main quest. I highly recommend Morrowind to RPG fans looking for that next game in which to become immersed. The story is deep and intriguing, the world is extremely well developed and there are angles within angles to discover and explore. RPG fans won’t be disappointed.